Foodies Rejoice: The 1st Pillsbury Bake-Off

Introduction: In this article – to help celebrate National Cookbook Month – Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about a cooking contest that has become an American tradition: the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Today, you might unwind after a busy day by watching a cooking contest on television. But cooking contests originated long before Food Network premiered. One of the most popular of the 20th century that continues today is the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (1)

An ad for Pillsbury cake mixes, Columbus Dispatch newspaper article 18 December 1949
Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), 18 December 1949, page 131

The Pillsbury Bake-Off

The Pillsbury Bake-Off premiered on 13 December 1949 in celebration of Pillsbury Mills’ 80th anniversary. According to the book Pillsbury’s Best: A Company History from 1869:

“The grocery product division’s new mixes had scored a notable success by bringing a new era of baking convenience to the American homemaker. How could this momentum be maintained, and what further boost could be given to sales of Pillsbury’s Best Family Flour, the division’s flagship product? Early in the year members of the division took the question to its advertising agency. Together they came up with a plan for women that became an American institution: the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest.” (2)

To determine the best flour-based recipes from the homes of U.S. families, Pillsbury invited home cooks to enter recipes that were judged by a panel of home economists who selected the best 200 recipes. These entries were then tested by another panel who chose the best 100 recipes to participate in the bake-off held in New York City. A total of 97 women and 3 men participated in the live event, all vying to be one of the winners of $100,000 in cash prizes. (3)

The event, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, included a special guest – First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – who wrote about her time at the bake-off in her “My Day” newspaper column. In her column she wrote that women from 37 states, the District of Columbia, and Alaska competed in that first bake-off, and although they were competing for cash prizes, every contestant took home the General Electric oven they cooked on at the bake-off.

An article about the Pillsbury Bake-Off, San Angelo Daily Standard newspaper article 19 December 1949
San Angelo Daily Standard (San Angelo, Texas), 19 December 1949, page 5

Mrs. Roosevelt also provided some insight into the winners’ reactions. Of the 2nd place winner, Miss Laura Rott of Naperville, Illinois, who won $10,000 for her Starlight Mint Surprise Cookies, she wrote:

“I was assured by those who sampled them as they came out of the oven that though they might look like ordinary cookies they tasted like your dream of something highly delectable. Miss Rott was speechless. She could hardly stand up and she had no idea what she would do with the money. She never thought of having so much money at one time in her hand.”

Miss Rott’s recipe was featured in the cookbook from that first bake-off.

Photo: Recipe for Starlight Mint Surprise Cookies, from cookbook in the author’s collection. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.
Photo: Recipe for Starlight Mint Surprise Cookies, from cookbook in the author’s collection. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

In the subsequent Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook for that first contest, the inspiration for this award-winning recipe is documented:

“The idea for this cooky [sic] came to Miss Rott when she was given a package of chocolate mints. A solid chocolate candy wafer flavored with mint is baked right in the cooky itself. The cooky dough is wrapped around the wafer, and a big walnut is pressed into the top. Looks just like a plain cooky – but what a luscious surprise when you take a bite!” (4)

Mrs. Roosevelt wrote this about the contest’s grand prize winner.

An article about the grand prize winner at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, San Angelo Daily Standard newspaper article 19 December 1949
San Angelo Daily Standard (San Angelo, Texas), 19 December 1949, page 5

The Cookbook

Genealogy Tip: Remember that married women of this time period might be listed with their first name and married surname in records, or with their husband’s first name and surname. In one case, a woman in this cookbook is listed by her husband’s name in the cookbook but in her local newspaper she was listed with her first name and married surname. Using name variations to search for female ancestors is a must.

Photo: cookbook from the first Pillsbury Bake-Off, from the author’s collection. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.
Photo: cookbook from the first Pillsbury Bake-Off, from the author’s collection. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

The bake-off winners’ recipes were immortalized in a recipe booklet published after the contest. That first recipe booklet includes the names, city/state, and comments about the recipes. Later Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe booklets included photos of the top prize winners.

With 25 cents and a coupon found in Pillsbury flour, you could obtain the bake-off cookbook of “96 pages, with glamorous full-color illustrations, food pictures galore; speedy new methods, old-time baking secrets and idea after idea of thrilling new things to bake – pies, cakes, cookies, main dishes, breads and desserts.”

An ad for a Pillsbury cookbook, Chicago Daily News newspaper article 17 June 1950
Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Illinois), 17 June 1950, page 59

Besides the recipes, the reason I am a fan of this series of cookbooks is that they include women’s names and places of residence – information that is genealogically relevant.

Did you have a family member who participated in that first bake-off? The names of winners (the majority are women but there are three men) are found in the cookbook and include the following: (5)

Mrs. Drue Alexander, Russells Point, Ohio
H. B. Andrews, Inglewood, California
Mrs. Anna R. Apple, Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan
Mrs. Joseph Arena, Forest Hills, New York
Mrs. Bess Atkinson, Brunswick, Georgia
Mrs. Harold W. Backstahler, East Lansing, Michigan
Mrs. George Allen Baird, Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Wallace Baker, Great Falls, Montana
Mrs. William Edwin Baker, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Mrs. Robert Bennetts, Davison, Michigan
Mrs. Alfred Bennyworth, St. Louis, Missouri
Mrs. William Berry, Kansas City, Missouri
Mrs. Edgar L. Bleeke, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Mrs. Linda Flesh Born, Freeport, New York
Mrs. Earl Raymond Broadwell, Santa Barbara, California
Mrs. Sigmund Broda, Bronx, New York
Mrs. Chester H. Burghoff, Yalesville, Connecticut
Mrs. Price C. Campbell, Houston, Texas
Mrs. Ellis O. Carlson, Rockford, Illinois
Mrs. Sally Clark, Santa Maria, California
Mrs. Arnold Creager, Pleasantville, Indiana
Mrs. Lawson Odom Dailey, Dallas, Texas
T.O. Davis, Waynesboro, Mississippi
Mrs. Richard Milton Dietz, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Mrs. W. W. Douglass, Searcy, Arkansas
Mrs. Sylvan Eisentein, Doniphan, Missouri
Mrs. Herbert Leslie Evans, New Cumberland, West Virginia
Mrs. Carmel Fredine, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Mrs. Joseph Francis Frewer, Savannah, Georgia
Mrs. Hazel Frost, Chicago, Illinois
Mrs. Peter Funcke, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Mrs. Edward D. Gallagher, San Francisco, California
Mrs. Lona Rosemary Gibson, Latonia, Kentucky
Mrs. Murray S. Goodfellow, Hanover, Pennsylvania
Mrs. Howard Graham, Charlotte, North Carolina
Mrs. Frank A. Grenier, Dorchester, Massachusetts
Mrs. Leroy W. Hall, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Mrs. J. W. Hamilton, Altus, Oklahoma
Mrs. Ethel Hansen, Anchorage, Alaska
Mrs. Carroll C. Harrison, Lima, Ohio
Mr. Harold Hartman, West Bend, Wisconsin
Mrs. Chester C. Holloman, Saratoga Springs, New York
Mrs. Blanche Joyner, Franklin, Virginia
Mrs. George Alfred Keep, Oswego, Oregon
Mrs. Albert P. Kimball, New York, New York
Mrs. William Kretchman, Atkinson, Nebraska
Mrs. Frank J. Lakota, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Mrs. Charles F. Lawman, Fountain City, Tennessee
Miss Elizabeth Phipps Lightcap, Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Ren Lyon, Cumberland, Ohio
Mrs. Joseph F. Maley, Osborn, Ohio
Mrs. Rhoda Marquart, Beaverdam, Ohio
Mrs. John Maxwell, Fort Smith, Arkansas
Mrs. Robert Monroe, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Mrs. William T. Mooney, Petaluma, California
Mrs. Elmer Ellis Mooring, Dallas, Texas
Mrs. A. L. Morrison, New Orleans, Louisiana
Mrs. Daniel F. Moss, Jamaica, Long Island, New York
Houston James Newman, St. Louis, Missouri
Mrs. Harry W. O’Donnell, Crandon, Wisconsin
Mrs. J. Vincent Orlett, West Portsmouth, Ohio
Mrs. O. A. Ornburn, Moberly, Missouri
Mrs. Mason Parker, Kenney, Illinois
Mrs. Numa F. Pigeon, Springfield, Massachusetts
Mrs. Albert G. Plagens, St. Paul, Minnesota
Mrs. David A. Rainey, Denver, Colorado
Mrs. C. Arthur Reseland, Des Moines, Iowa
Mrs. Henry Roeschlein, Chicago, Illinois
Miss Laura Rott, Naperville, Illinois
Mrs. John Cabbell Roy, Birmingham, Alabama
Mrs. Joseph Rutkowski, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Miss Florence C. Schoenleber, Lincoln, Nebraska
Mrs. Joseph Serafino, Muskegon, Michigan
Miss Aquina G. Shea, Glyndon, Minnesota
Mrs. Roger Slick, Waynesboro, Pennsylvania
Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield, Detroit, Michigan
Mrs. Stanley L. Smith, Kansas City, Missouri
Mrs. William Sonnenburg, Oak Lawn, Illinois
Mrs. Melvin R. Spalding, Pleasantville, New York
Mrs. Martin Stevlingson, Menomonie, Wisconsin
Mrs. Lynn S. Strickler, Catonsville, Maryland
Mrs. Casimer T. Subbie, Fort Worth, Texas
Miss Margaret M. Sullivan, Newport, New Hampshire
Mrs. Elizabeth H. Tinkler, Maitland, Florida
Miss Jennifer Trace, Wilmington, Delaware
Mrs. Edwin T. Tracy, Ogden, Utah
Mrs. Eddie R. Wagoner, Bryan, Texas
Mrs. George B. Wesler, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Mrs. Leroy Wettstein, New Holstein, Wisconsin
Mrs. L. W. Willis, Portsmouth, Virginia
Mrs. Harry A. Winer, Kansas City, Missouri
Mrs. L. J. Wipperfurth, Madison, Wisconsin
Mrs. Carl Witt, Atchison, Kansas
Mrs. Thomas W. Wolfe, Hagerstown, Maryland
Mrs. Estella Worley, Los Angeles, California
Miss Loretto Yeager, St. Louis, Missouri

Genealogy Tip: If your family member entered a nationwide contest, don’t forget to look for information on that contest in all newspapers (no matter where published), and then narrow your search to newspapers in the state, and then the local newspapers where they lived.


(1) “Bake-Off Contest,” Pillsbury ( accessed 22 October 2021).
(2) Powell, William J. Pillsbury’s Best. A Company History from 1869. Minneapolis, MN: The Pillsbury Company (1985), p. 149.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Pillsbury Mills, 100 Prize-Winning Recipes (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Pillsbury, 1950).
(5) I’ve put the surnames in alphabetical order to ease the search process. If your ancestor’s name is found here, you’ll need to search newspapers and the cookbook for more information about the recipe she/he submitted.

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